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Charles Dickens > Speeches: Literary and Social > BIRMINGHAM, SEPTEMBER 27, 1869

Speeches: Literary and Social


[Inaugural Address on the opening of the Winter Session of the
Birmingham and Midland Institute.

One who was present during the delivery of the following speech,
informs the editor that "no note of any kind was referred to by Mr.
Dickens--except the Quotation from Sydney Smith. The address,
evidently carefully prepared, was delivered without a single pause,
in Mr. Dickens's best manner, and was a very great success."]

Ladies and gentlemen,--We often hear of our common country that it
is an over-populated one, that it is an over-pauperized one, that
it is an over-colonizing one, and that it is an over-taxed one.
Now, I entertain, especially of late times, the heretical belief
that it is an over-talked one, and that there is a deal of public
speech-making going about in various directions which might be
advantageously dispensed with. If I were free to act upon this
conviction, as president for the time being of the great
institution so numerously represented here, I should immediately
and at once subside into a golden silence, which would be of a
highly edifying, because of a very exemplary character. But I
happen to be the institution's willing servant, not its imperious
master, and it exacts tribute of mere silver or copper speech--not
to say brazen--from whomsoever it exalts to my high office. Some
African tribes--not to draw the comparison disrespectfully--some
savage African tribes, when they make a king require him perhaps to
achieve an exhausting foot-race under the stimulus of considerable
popular prodding and goading, or perhaps to be severely and
experimentally knocked about the head by his Privy Council, or
perhaps to be dipped in a river full of crocodiles, or perhaps to
drink immense quantities of something nasty out of a calabash--at
all events, to undergo some purifying ordeal in presence of his
admiring subjects.

I must confess that I became rather alarmed when I was duly warned
by your constituted authorities that whatever I might happen to say
here to-night would be termed an inaugural address on the entrance
upon a new term of study by the members of your various classes;
for, besides that, the phrase is something high-sounding for my
taste, I avow that I do look forward to that blessed time when
every man shall inaugurate his own work for himself, and do it. I
believe that we shall then have inaugurated a new era indeed, and
one in which the Lord's Prayer will become a fulfilled prophecy
upon this earth. Remembering, however, that you may call anything
by any name without in the least changing its nature--bethinking
myself that you may, if you be so minded, call a butterfly a
buffalo, without advancing a hair's breadth towards making it one--
I became composed in my mind, and resolved to stick to the very
homely intention I had previously formed. This was merely to tell
you, the members, students, and friends of the Birmingham and
Midland Institute--firstly, what you cannot possibly want to know,
(this is a very popular oratorical theme); secondly, what your
institution has done; and, thirdly, what, in the poor opinion of
its President for the time being, remains for it to do and not to

Now, first, as to what you cannot possibly want to know. You
cannot need from me any oratorical declamation concerning the
abstract advantages of knowledge or the beauties of self-
improvement. If you had any such requirement you would not be
here. I conceive that you are here because you have become
thoroughly penetrated with such principles, either in your own
persons or in the persons of some striving fellow-creatures, on
whom you have looked with interest and sympathy. I conceive that
you are here because you feel the welfare of the great chiefly
adult educational establishment, whose doors stand really open to
all sorts and conditions of people, to be inseparable from the best
welfare of your great town and its neighbourhood. Nay, if I take a
much wider range than that, and say that we all--every one of us
here--perfectly well know that the benefits of such an
establishment must extend far beyond the limits of this midland
county--its fires and smoke,--and must comprehend, in some sort,
the whole community, I do not strain the truth. It was suggested
by Mr. Babbage, in his ninth "Bridgewater Treatise," that a mere
spoken word--a single articulated syllable thrown into the air--may
go on reverberating through illimitable space for ever and for
ever, seeing that there is no rim against which it can strike--no
boundary at which it can possibly arrive. Similarly it may be
said--not as an ingenious speculation, but as a stedfast and
absolute fact--that human calculation cannot limit the influence of
one atom of wholesome knowledge patiently acquired, modestly
possessed, and faithfully used.

As the astronomers tell us that it is probable that there are in
the universe innumerable solar systems besides ours, to each of
which myriads of utterly unknown and unseen stars belong, so it is
certain that every man, however obscure, however far removed from
the general recognition, is one of a group of men impressible for
good, and impressible for evil, and that it is in the eternal
nature of things that he cannot really improve himself without in
some degree improving other men. And observe, this is especially
the case when he has improved himself in the teeth of adverse
circumstances, as in a maturity succeeding to a neglected or an
ill-taught youth, in the few daily hours remaining to him after ten
or twelve hours' labour, in the few pauses and intervals of a life
of toil; for then his fellows and companions have assurance that he
can have known no favouring conditions, and that they can do what
he has done, in wresting some enlightenment and self-respect from
what Lord Lytton finely calls -

"Those twin gaolers of the daring heart,
Low birth and iron fortune."

As you have proved these truths in your own experience or in your
own observation, and as it may be safely assumed that there can be
very few persons in Birmingham, of all places under heaven, who
would contest the position that the more cultivated the employed
the better for the employer, and the more cultivated the employer
the better for the employed; therefore, my references to what you
do not want to know shall here cease and determine.

Next, with reference to what your institution has done on my
summary, which shall be as concise and as correct as my information
and my remembrance of it may render possible, I desire to lay
emphatic stress. Your institution, sixteen years old, and in which
masters and workmen study together, has outgrown the ample edifice
in which it receives its 2,500 or 2,600 members and students. It
is a most cheering sign of its vigorous vitality that of its
industrial-students almost half are artisans in the receipt of
weekly wages. I think I am correct in saying that 400 others are
clerks, apprentices, tradesmen, or tradesmen's sons. I note with
particular pleasure the adherence of a goodly number of the gentler
sex, without whom no institution whatever can truly claim to be
either a civilising or a civilised one. The increased attendance
at your educational classes is always greatest on the part of the
artisans--the class within my experience the least reached in any
similar institutions elsewhere, and whose name is the oftenest and
the most constantly taken in vain. But it is specially reached
here, not improbably because it is, as it should be, specially
addressed in the foundation of the industrial department, in the
allotment of the direction of the society's affairs, and in the
establishment of what are called its penny classes--a bold, and, I
am happy to say, a triumphantly successful experiment, which
enables the artisan to obtain sound evening instruction in subjects
directly bearing upon his daily usefulness or on his daily
happiness, as arithmetic (elementary and advanced), chemistry,
physical geography, and singing, on payment of the astoundingly low
fee of a single penny every time he attends the class. I beg
emphatically to say that I look upon this as one of the most
remarkable schemes ever devised for the educational behoof of the
artisan, and if your institution had done nothing else in all its
life, I would take my stand by it on its having done this.

Apart, however, from its industrial department, it has its general
department, offering all the advantages of a first-class literary
institution. It has its reading-rooms, its library, its chemical
laboratory, its museum, its art department, its lecture hall, and
its long list of lectures on subjects of various and comprehensive
interest, delivered by lecturers of the highest qualifications.
Very well. But it may be asked, what are the practical results of
all these appliances? Now, let us suppose a few. Suppose that
your institution should have educated those who are now its
teachers. That would be a very remarkable fact. Supposing,
besides, it should, so to speak, have educated education all around
it, by sending forth numerous and efficient teachers into many and
divers schools. Suppose the young student, reared exclusively in
its laboratory, should be presently snapped up for the laboratory
of the great and famous hospitals. Suppose that in nine years its
industrial students should have carried off a round dozen of the
much competed for prizes awarded by the Society of Arts and the
Government department, besides two local prizes originating in the
generosity of a Birmingham man. Suppose that the Town Council,
having it in trust to find an artisan well fit to receive the
Whitworth prizes, should find him here. Suppose that one of the
industrial students should turn his chemical studies to the
practical account of extracting gold from waste colour water, and
of taking it into custody, in the very act of running away with
hundreds of pounds down the town drains. Suppose another should
perceive in his books, in his studious evenings, what was amiss
with his master's until then inscrutably defective furnace, and
should go straight--to the great annual saving of that master--and
put it right. Supposing another should puzzle out the means, until
then quite unknown in England, of making a certain description of
coloured glass. Supposing another should qualify himself to
vanquish one by one, as they daily arise, all the little
difficulties incidental to his calling as an electro-plater, and
should be applied to by his companions in the shop in all
emergencies under the name of the "Encyclopaedia." Suppose a long
procession of such cases, and then consider that these are not
suppositions at all, but are plain, unvarnished facts, culminating
in the one special and significant fact that, with a single
solitary exception, every one of the institution's industrial
students who have taken its prizes within ten years, have since
climbed to higher situations in their way of life.

As to the extent to which the institution encourages the artisan to
think, and so, for instance, to rise superior to the little
shackling prejudices and observances perchance existing in his
trade when they will not bear the test of inquiry, that is only to
be equalled by the extent to which it encourages him to feel.
There is a certain tone of modest manliness pervading all the
little facts which I have looked through which I found remarkably
impressive. The decided objection on the part of industrial
students to attend classes in their working clothes, breathes this
tone, as being a graceful and at the same time perfectly
independent recognition of the place and of one another. And this
tone is admirably illustrated in a different way, in the case of a
poor bricklayer, who, being in temporary reverses through the
illness of his family, and having consequently been obliged to part
with his best clothes, and being therefore missed from his classes,
in which he had been noticed as a very hard worker, was persuaded
to attend them in his working clothes. He replied, "No, it was not
possible. It must not be thought of. It must not come into
question for a moment. It would be supposed, or it might be
thought, that he did it to attract attention." And the same man
being offered by one of the officers a loan of money to enable him
to rehabilitate his appearance, positively declined it, on the
ground that he came to the institution to learn and to know better
how to help himself, not otherwise to ask help, or to receive help
from any man. Now, I am justified in calling this the tone of the
institution, because it is no isolated instance, but is a fair and
honourable sample of the spirit of the place, and as such I put it
at the conclusion--though last certainly not least--of my
references to what your institution has indubitably done.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I come at length to what, in the humble
opinion of the evanescent officer before you, remains for the
institution to do, and not to do. As Mr. Carlyle has it towards
the closing pages of his grand history of the French Revolution,
"This we are now with due brevity to glance at; and then courage,
oh listener, I see land!" {18} I earnestly hope--and I firmly
believe--that your institution will do henceforth as it has done
hitherto; it can hardly do better. I hope and believe that it will
know among its members no distinction of persons, creed, or party,
but that it will conserve its place of assemblage as a high, pure
ground, on which all such considerations shall merge into the one
universal, heaven-sent aspiration of the human soul to be wiser and
better. I hope and believe that it will always be expansive and
elastic; for ever seeking to devise new means of enlarging the
circle of its members, of attracting to itself the confidence of
still greater and greater numbers, and never evincing any more
disposition to stand still than time does, or life does, or the
seasons do. And above all things, I hope, and I feel confident
from its antecedents, that it will never allow any consideration on
the face of the earth to induce it to patronise or to be
patronised, for I verily believe that the bestowal and receipt of
patronage in such wise has been a curse in England, and that it has
done more to prevent really good objects, and to lower really high
character, than the utmost efforts of the narrowest antagonism
could have effected in twice the time.

I have no fear that the walls of the Birmingham and Midland
Institute will ever tremble responsive to the croakings of the
timid opponents of intellectual progress; but in this connexion
generally I cannot forbear from offering a remark which is much
upon my mind. It is commonly assumed--much too commonly--that this
age is a material age, and that a material age is an irreligious
age. I have been pained lately to see this assumption repeated in
certain influential quarters for which I have a high respect, and
desire to have a higher. I am afraid that by dint of constantly
being reiterated, and reiterated without protest, this assumption--
which I take leave altogether to deny--may be accepted by the more
unthinking part of the public as unquestionably true; just as
caricaturists and painters, professedly making a portrait of some
public man, which was not in the least like him to begin with, have
gone on repeating and repeating it until the public came to believe
that it must be exactly like him, simply because it was like
itself, and really have at last, in the fulness of time, grown
almost disposed to resent upon him their tardy discovery--really to
resent upon him their late discovery--that he was not like it. I
confess, standing here in this responsible situation, that I do not
understand this much-used and much-abused phrase--the "material
age." I cannot comprehend--if anybody can I very much doubt--its
logical signification. For instance, has electricity become more
material in the mind of any sane or moderately insane man, woman,
or child, because of the discovery that in the good providence of
God it could be made available for the service and use of man to an
immeasurably greater extent than for his destruction? Do I make a
more material journey to the bed-side of my dying parent or my
dying child when I travel there at the rate of sixty miles an hour,
than when I travel thither at the rate of six? Rather, in the
swiftest case, does not my agonised heart become over-fraught with
gratitude to that Supreme Beneficence from whom alone could have
proceeded the wonderful means of shortening my suspense? What is
the materiality of the cable or the wire compared with the
materiality of the spark? What is the materiality of certain
chemical substances that we can weigh or measure, imprison or
release, compared with the materiality of their appointed
affinities and repulsions presented to them from the instant of
their creation to the day of judgment? When did this so-called
material age begin? With the use of clothing; with the discovery
of the compass; with the invention of the art of printing? Surely,
it has been a long time about; and which is the more material
object, the farthing tallow candle that will not give me light, or
that flame of gas which will?

No, ladies and gentlemen, do not let us be discouraged or deceived
by any fine, vapid, empty words. The true material age is the
stupid Chinese age, in which no new or grand revelations of nature
are granted, because they are ignorantly and insolently repelled,
instead of being diligently and humbly sought. The difference
between the ancient fiction of the mad braggart defying the
lightning and the modern historical picture of Franklin drawing it
towards his kite, in order that he might the more profoundly study
that which was set before him to be studied (or it would not have
been there), happily expresses to my mind the distinction between
the much-maligned material sages--material in one sense, I suppose,
but in another very immaterial sages--of the Celestial Empire
school. Consider whether it is likely or unlikely, natural or
unnatural, reasonable or unreasonable, that I, a being capable of
thought, and finding myself surrounded by such discovered wonders
on every hand, should sometimes ask myself the question--should put
to myself the solemn consideration--can these things be among those
things which might have been disclosed by divine lips nigh upon two
thousand years ago, but that the people of that time could not bear
them? And whether this be so or no, if I am so surrounded on every
hand, is not my moral responsibility tremendously increased
thereby, and with it my intelligence and submission as a child of
Adam and of the dust, before that Shining Source which equally of
all that is granted and all that is withheld holds in His mighty
hands the unapproachable mysteries of life and death.

To the students of your industrial classes generally I have had it
in my mind, first, to commend the short motto, in two words,
"Courage--Persevere." This is the motto of a friend and worker.
Not because the eyes of Europe are upon them, for I don't in the
least believe it; nor because the eyes of even England are upon
them, for I don't in the least believe it; not because their doings
will be proclaimed with blast of trumpet at street corners, for no
such musical performances will take place; not because self-
improvement is at all certain to lead to worldly success, but
simply because it is good and right of itself, and because, being
so, it does assuredly bring with it its own resources and its own
rewards. I would further commend to them a very wise and witty
piece of advice on the conduct of the understanding which was given
more than half a century ago by the Rev. Sydney Smith--wisest and
wittiest of the friends I have lost. He says--and he is speaking,
you will please understand, as I speak, to a school of volunteer
students--he says: "There is a piece of foppery which is to be
cautiously guarded against, the foppery of universality, of knowing
all sciences and excelling in all arts--chymistry, mathematics,
algebra, dancing, history, reasoning, riding, fencing, Low Dutch,
High Dutch, and natural philosophy. In short, the modern precept
of education very often is, 'Take the Admirable Crichton for your
model, I would have you ignorant of nothing.' Now," says he, "my
advice, on the contrary, is to have the courage to be ignorant of a
great number of things, in order that you may avoid the calamity of
being ignorant of everything."

To this I would superadd a little truth, which holds equally good
of my own life and the life of every eminent man I have ever known.
The one serviceable, safe, certain, remunerative, attainable
quality in every study and in every pursuit is the quality of
attention. My own invention or imagination, such as it is, I can
most truthfully assure you, would never have served me as it has,
but for the habit of commonplace, humble, patient, daily, toiling,
drudging attention. Genius, vivacity, quickness of penetration,
brilliancy in association of ideas--such mental qualities, like the
qualities of the apparition of the externally armed head in
Macbeth, will not be commanded; but attention, after due term of
submissive service, always will. Like certain plants which the
poorest peasant may grow in the poorest soil, it can be cultivated
by any one, and it is certain in its own good season to bring forth
flowers and fruit. I can most truthfully assure you by-the-by,
that this eulogium on attention is so far quite disinterested on my
part as that it has not the least reference whatever to the
attention with which you have honoured me.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have done. I cannot but reflect how
often you have probably heard within these walls one of the
foremost men, and certainly one of the very best speakers, if not
the very best, in England. I could not say to myself, when I began
just now, in Shakespeare's line -

"I will be BRIGHT and shining gold,"

but I could say to myself, and I did say to myself, "I will be as
natural and easy as I possibly can," because my heart has all been
in my subject, and I bear an old love towards Birmingham and
Birmingham men. I have said that I bear an old love towards
Birmingham and Birmingham men; let me amend a small omission, and
add "and Birmingham women." This ring I wear on my finger now is
an old Birmingham gift, and if by rubbing it I could raise the
spirit that was obedient to Aladdin's ring, I heartily assure you
that my first instruction to that genius on the spot should be to
place himself at Birmingham's disposal in the best of causes.

[In acknowledging the vote of thanks, Mr. Dickens said:-]

Ladies and gentlemen, as I hope it is more than possible that I
shall have the pleasure of meeting you again before Christmas is
out, and shall have the great interest of seeing the faces and
touching the bands of the successful competitors in your lists, I
will not cast upon that anticipated meeting the terrible
foreshadowing of dread which must inevitably result from a second
speech. I thank you most heartily, and I most sincerely and
fervently say to you, "Good night, and God bless you." In
reference to the appropriate and excellent remarks of Mr. Dixon, I
will now discharge my conscience of my political creed, which is
contained in two articles, and has no reference to any party or
persons. My faith in the people governing is, on the whole,
infinitesimal; my faith in the People governed is, on the whole,

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FEBRUARY 7, 1842
LONDON, APRIL 30, 1853
LONDON, MAY 1, 1853
LONDON, MARCH 29, 1858
LONDON, APRIL 29, 1858
LONDON, MAY 1, 1858
LONDON, JULY 21, 1858
LONDON, MARCH 29, 1862
LONDON, MAY 20, 1862
LONDON, MAY 11, 1864
LONDON, MAY 9, 1865
LONDON, MARCH 28, 1866
LONDON, MAY 7, 1866
LONDON, JUNE 5, 1867
NEW YORK, APRIL 18, 1863
NEW YORK, APRIL 20, 1868
LONDON, APRIL 14, 1851
LONDON, MAY 8, 1858

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